Though the Vanderbilts would make their mark with sumptuous mansions along Fifth Avenue and along the Eastern seaboard, the family got its start on the north shore of Staten Island in Port Richmond. A few years ago, the New York Public Library took a deep dive hoping to locate the exact birthplace of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Commodore who created the family’s fortune, first with a ferry service from Staten Island and then in railroads. Andrew Wilson from the NYPL writes, “This magnate was born on Staten Island–but where, exactly? Most modern sources give the general answer of Port Richmond, a neighborhood on the island’s North Shore.” The house in Stapleton, where Cornelius and his family moved when he was a child is “well-documented…but little is recorded about the street or house where he may have been born.” And while the grand homes of other Staten Island families still remain, like the Seguines, there is not much physically left of one of the most famous families to emerge from the borough.
Cornelius was born on May 27, 1794. In 1902, the Staten Island Advance, identified his birthplace as the Harrison Homestead, said to be at 125 Richmond Avenue citing information from the Commodore’s wife. The article described it as a “neat farm-house of two stories, and of fair dimension.” It also reported that a photograph was commissioned of the homestead, by the Commodore’s second wife, Frank Armstrong Crawford (Frank was unusual for a woman’s name then and now), a cousin from Alabama who seems to have had quite the influence on him.
Frank was the driving force behind his $1 million donation to create Vanderbilt University, which was the largest charitable gift ever at that time. This was particularly significant also Cornelius had no intention of giving money to charity. She also worked on a Vanderbilt family history, which led to the photograph of the Harrison Homestead. Not far down the street is the Reformed Church of Staten Island, which would have been located here at the time of Cornelius’ birth (though in its third iteration). The current building was constructed in 1844 but this church has had a building here since 1680. Its cemetery covers both sides of the church.
The numbers on the street have changed since Cornelius’ time (and the time of the Advance article) and the name updated to include “Port,” a reference to the steamboat landing and other waterfront additions Cornelius and others were responsible for. Wilson references an old 1884 map, overlaid on a present-day map, to locate the exact spot where the Harrison Homestead would have been. He finds that it corresponds to today’s 203 to 209 Port Richmond Avenue, which today is home to No. 1 Chinese Kitchen takeout on the corner, All Star electronics shop, and a dental office. You can find a grainy photo of the Homestead in a later Advance article here.
Wilson notes, “Cornelius Vanderbilt is largely forgotten on the street of his birth. It is fitting for the unsentimental man who knocked down the hotel where he courted his first wife. After all, his second wife, not the Commodore himself, chose to create the only record his birthplace.”
Entrance to the Vanderbilt Mausoleum at Moravian Cemetery where Cornelius is interred.
The Advance also reports that in his later years, the Commodore was “fond of speaking of the old times, and hunted up acquaintances with whom he had been friendly in the early days.” The article is not complimentary however, stating that there was “no poetry in the composition of Cornelius” and that “he acquired a great fortune and one day died and left it at all at the mouth of the ugly tomb with the statue of the weeping woman on the top, which he had built for himself and ninety-nine other individuals of his blood.”
In a fitting twist of fate, a portion of Vanderbilt Avenue in the Park Hill neighborhood of Staten Island was designated as “Wu-Tang Clan” District earlier this year, overlaying two very divergent histories of the borough. What would the Commodore think of that?